I'll take a person with secrets over a person with no secrets any day,"" declares Josh Auerbach--the only mensch among the squabbling offspring of 89-year-old Essie, widow of the founder of Eaton and Cromwell, a multi-monied conglomerate. And throughout Essie's recollections of her Downtown-to-Uptown career, delicious secrets--scandals, blackmail, affairs, adultery, a tragedy or two--simmer and pop like dumplings. In the present, Essie is hostessing her traditional tree-trimming Christmas dinner, a champagne affair peopled by some ancient remnants from the old German-Jewish Manhattan elite--especially Essie's kids and kin: shrill daughter Joan, a svelte 70, now on her fourth husband, who needs more money to float her ever-failing newspaper, the Express; son Martin (""Mogie""), self-styled Renaissance Man, who's finally cured his impotence with a brassy young wife; Joan's daughter Karen, whose new boyfriend hopes to urge her into A.A.; the above-mentioned Josh, head of the Firm. (Daughter Babette, working hard at playing at Palm Beach, is absent.) Joan and Mogie will conspire to ease Mother out of some moola in a post-party confab, musing over the possibility that the dim organized crime figure known as Arthur Litton is Mother's baby brother Abe. Then a very dear old family friend appears: Daisy Stevens, to whom Essie apparently owes much. . . but why? So now Birmingham drifts back over Essie's life--back to the Essie Litsky of the Lower East Side where mother Minna keeps a candy store; where Essie meets dreamy, idealistic Jake Auerbach, a ""Christian Jew"" to Essie's Orthodox father: their marriage means a ""dead"" daughter. The couple move to Chicago to work for relatives--but brother Abe, on the lam from some trouble in New York, pushes Jake into a mail-order business at the right time. . . and it's on to riches (with no small help from Essie and friend Charles Wilmont, a business school grad--he says). Secrets surface into the present: Why did Essie pay money every month to Uncle Abe? What happened to the ""little Prince,"" Essie's first son? Was Josh really fathered by Jake, the husband-turned-money-mad-autocrat whom Essie actively disliked? What lay at the private heart of gentleman Charles? And who was Daisy Stevens? All these tantalizers will be answered in the gossipy, Uptown/Downtown milieu Birmingham knows so well, with splendid soap as the result: fine-milled--and spiced with chilled-martini luxury living.